Eugenics in America: Forced Hysterectomies in an ICE Detention Centre

In the past few weeks, disturbing news has surfaced on medical injustices taking place in a Georgia Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centre. ICE nurse Dawn Wooten and non-profit organization Project South recently put together a Whistleblower report, in which they highlight the ways in which detainees are being coerced into undergoing hysterectomies in the Irwin County Detention Centre. So far, the detention centre has sterilized 17 to 18 women against their will, five of which Wooten spoke with to retrieve more detailed accounts.

The report identifies several red flags, providing a clear picture of what it is like to be a woman in the facility. All the women explained that the procedure was performed by Mehendra Amin, the sole gynaecologist in charge of hysterectomies. In the official report, Wooten explains that the process resembles a dystopian world in which women’s bodies are coerced at an “experimental concentration camp” by what the women call  “The Uterus Collector”. She further explains that women are sterilized without consent, many of them unable to understand the procedures they are forced into participating in due to the language barrier. 

Following the release of the report, 160 Democrats have demanded for an immediate investigation to take place, with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, stating that it stands as “a staggering abuse of human rights.” However, as seen in a statement made to the BBC, ICE is attempting to downplay the situation, claiming that “anonymous, unproven allegations made, without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate scepticism they deserve.” ICE urges lawmakers and the public to not jump to conclusions, implying that it would be premature to take these accounts at face value. However, American history suggests that the events unraveling in the Georgia detention centre are not as far-fetched as one may think.

In her article, “Immigration Detention and Coerced Sterilization: History Tragically Repeats Itself,” Professor Maya Manian argues that the forced sterilization is not an isolated case; the United States has a long history of non-consensual and forced sterilization of marginalized groups that can be traced back to the country’s colonial period. She explains that, through most of the 20th century, more than 60,000 coercive sterilizations have been carried out in American states as part of the eugenics movement, all done with the intention of enhancing the “quality” of the nation’s population. Professor Manian outlines how the eugenics movement was heavily influenced by racist beliefs, leading them to target poor and immigrant racial minorities; specifically, Latina women were seen as hyper-breeders and thus welfare dependent. They subsequently became seen as wombs reproducing undesirable populations in accordance with the beliefs of a “Eugenic America.”

Professor Takamura, Faculty Lecturer at McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development, explained in an interview that “the medical surveillance of women in detention centres is related to racial discrimination”. She specifies that the Trump administration has problematized reproductive capacity of women out of fear that foreign women will have anchor babies (children with birthright citizenship) which would grant them access to America.

In her paper focusing on the forced sterilization in Los Angeles from 1965-1978, Eesha Khan illustrates how Spanish-speaking women lost control over their reproductive rights to white, male physicians. Meanwhile, governments staffed by largely white lawmakers would claim the right to make further decisions on the women’s behalf. Professor Takamura sees Khan’s argument as relevant to the present day, stating that “medical professionals actively perpetuate systemic racism by sterilizing vulnerable Latina women.” As she argues, this leads medical doctors to prioritize the government’s values over the patient’s interests.

The contents of the Madrigal v. Quilligan case, a Los Angeles county court case that took place during the same time period which Khan wrote on, demonstrates how federally funded sterilization programs took advantage of Mexican women’s inability to give consent to sterilizations. In a paper on the case, Professor Alexandra Stern explains that hospital workers strategically presented working-class, Spanish-speaking migrant women with English-language consent forms while they were in labour. This made consent nearly impossible for the women represented in this case (a small fraction of the 140 women who were sterilized in LA at the time). 

While the Madrigal v. Quilligan case secured a clause in legislation that required consent forms to be bilingual, Wooten explains that the lack of translators still prevents migrant women from fully understanding what is being said about their body. This case is eerily similar to the case recently reported on in Georgia, particularly in the way that both exploit the language barrier of migrant women. In many ways, history is repeating itself. 

When asked what can be done to address these issues, Professor Takamura emphasized the importance of taking advantage of domestic law rather than relying on international human rights regimes and the United Nations, which are both relatively incapacitated due to issues related to sovereignty.

Professor Takamura problematizes the way “we tend to think constitutional rights are only limited to citizens”, explaining that human rights actors in Canada frequently reference the constitution while defending migrants in court. A landmark case in 2019 granted immigrant detainees the opportunity to challenge the legality of their detention through habeas corpus. In the American context, this is supported by Wilsher, who believes that we must lean on domestic law and the constitution, explaining that the Thirteenth Amendment norm of equal treatment can be used to protect migrants. 

To Manian, both the Madrigal case and the ongoing case in Georgia reveal that coerced sterilization is grounded in the discrimination of migrant women along the lines of gender, race, poverty, and immigration status. The unique intersection of identity has led to the targeted, and forced, sterilization of migrant women. Historically, migrant women’s bodies have been framed as disposable and a threat to the security of the US. Evidently, as seen in Georgia, this continues to shape the way migrant women are treated in the US. Approaching this with the skepticism that ICE see as deserved would stand in the face of America’s long history of eugenic practices and would dismiss the egregious abuse of human rights that is now taking place in Georgia. 

Edited by Yu Xuan Zhao.

Photo credits: “Close the Camps” by Peg Hunter, published on 08/28/2019, licensed under Flickr Attribution-NonCommercial License. No changes were made.

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